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Register time: or the importance of developing children’s Standard English

Date posted: Saturday 30th March 2013

M&SI’m at that awkward stage in a man’s life when he has to buy a new pair of trousers. I was in a well-known shop in Belfast, and was being encouraged by the assistant supervising the changing room to ‘experiment with trying a few different styles, as “many pairs of trousers have quite a bit of what we call ‘give’ ” (i.e. an elasticated waist.) I thought the assistant explained that very well, and though she had a Belfast accent, I understood everything she said. She was very pleasant and dealt with my dilemma very tactfully. I could see from her name tag that she was called Ann.

As I was trying to squeeze into a pair of chinos I heard Ann talking to another assistant. The conversation went like this:

Mary: Aim frayzin, sure enough.

Ann: Sure and aim roastin.

Mary: Sure and the wendow clayna said he was sweltrin. Ann, well yu fayl may hondz.

Ann: (feels Mary’s hands): Sure they’re warm right enough.

Mary: Warm? They’re frayzin sure enough. They’re layk ace.

Ann: Ace? It must be global warmin theyin. Are yu shore yu fengez won’t be aboit to melt?

Mary: That’s how mai hondz whurr Saturdih. I sayiz to Gerry. I sayiz, ‘Gerry fayl mai hondz thurr.’

And he sayiz to may, ‘Or you getting seck?’ and I sayiz to Gerry. I sayiz, ‘Ay don’t know.’

Ann: Sure and urr yu trayin to throw a sickeh?

Mary: Hush, that fella mayt ondorstond us!!

This was Belfast dialect at its broadest and magnificent. Though I could just about understand what they were saying, it’s very difficult for an Englishman like me to fully transcribe every word in all its impenetrable beauty. It was definitely Ann talking, and as I got ready to hand back the trousers I wondered if she was going to treat me to some of her dialect. Not a bit of it: “There you go sir. Which did you choose? Ah the elasticated waist. My husband finds those helpful.”

Ann was switching register. She knows that as an assistant in this shop she needs to use English that any customer can understand, as this is expected of her. Her managers will expect this, and in doing so they are not being snobby or patronising about the local dialect. Like anyone who provides a service to customers, you are expected to use Standard English. Ann can immediately switch from her informal local dialect, or register, into Standard English in formal situations, whenever it is appropriate.

Little Jimmy’s dad didn’t quite stick to this convention when I first met him. Jimmy had language delay, and had been attending my language unit in North London every day for three months. Though I had met mum regularly, this was my first meeting with dad.

Imagine a broad London accent…

Dad: Yer doin’ a ****in’ great job wiv little Jimmy. ‘Es torkin like a goodun.

Mum: Tommy, you can’t speak to Michael like that. He’s a professional.

Dad: Michael’s not bovvered, are you Mike? No point torkin posh (Actually he said ‘torkin like a ponce’ but I thought I’d tone his language down for any sensitive readers.)

Mike’: Maybe you could cut the swearing down though, as Jimmy’s listening.

Dad: Right you are.

Both parents knew about switching register, but I felt that Jimmy’s dad was making a point. He was treating me like an equal, while mum was treating me as a’ professional’. It was a subtle thing, and though it was all very friendly, I could see that dad knew exactly what he was doing. He was a bit defensive and was using his familiar register to imply, “I know as much as you do. There’s nothing wrong with my boy. He’s doing fine and I’m grateful.” Maybe it’s a man thing?

Very young children who are exposed to two languages are naturally aware of when to use their languages with different people. I met an 18-month-old who was learning English and Spanish and just knew to say ‘hello’ to me, instead of ‘hola’. This code switching is an important early stage in learning an additional language. Like adults, children also gradually learn to change their register, from the familiar type of language of home, street and playground, to using Standard English. This is particularly important when talking with adults in school.

It is very important that children learn about different registers and when to use them. In school we use Standard English. Teachers will be expected to use this register and children will be expected to write in it. All non-fiction books and most reading scheme books are written in Standard English. As children get older it will be assumed that they will use Standard English when talking to teachers, though they can talk in their local dialect or familiar register at other times.

We can help young children learn about different registers by messing around with language: as we tell stories, play with puppets and in role play. Children will be aware of different accents and registers from TV and films. I love the turtles in Finding Nemo, who talk to each other and Nemo in what is known as Surfer Lingo: where everything is ‘totally awesome Dude’. Children laugh when I talk like that because they understand the reference and recognize the register. Two year olds know that when I talk to them as if they were a baby –in Motherese– that I am only messing about, and that it is not appropriate for me to talk to them like that, ‘Cos me big boy now.’

We do have a responsibility to help children develop Standard English, as well as respecting the dialect that they use at home. Like most aspects of language learning, it comes through everyday exposure when talking with adults. That is why I encourage care and support staff in early years settings and schools to use Standard English when talking with children. In my travels across the UK I meet staff, particularly in areas with strong regionals dialects, who only use one register: their familiar regional dialect. This can mean that the children they care for will be at a disadvantage when they start school, because their teachers will almost certainly be using Standard English. For some children who have only been exposed to their regional dialect, this can be a bit like learning a second language.

I realise that this is a challenging statement, and particularly for managers and head teachers who are appointing staff from the local community, but it is important that children grow up with as rich an understanding of language as we can give them. Adults are the most important resource when it comes to developing children’s language, and the more well -developed the adults’ language the faster children will learn. Innit?

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3 responses to “Register time: or the importance of developing children’s Standard English”

  1. Sally spaghetti belly says:

    You do make me laugh! Innit.

  2. moriel gidney says:

    Would you say this is in parallel with standard behaviours also – that as children are picked up from Nursery and transfer to the custody of their parent/carer, their behaviour can also revert to another ‘dialect’. We have seen this regularly, a child who will accept boundaries here yet behave outside them as their parent stands next to them (eg throwing something across the room). Do not these two areas of life also at times exclude the child – from those who don’t understand their speech and those who do not accept their behaviour?
    Very interesting yet also challenging for those working with young children who are learning acceptable behaviour and speech in order to fit into the broadstream of society.
    Does it not also raise a question for secondary teachers/workers to live out this understanding of context for language?
    Thank you for your thoughts and the way they come out of experience and life alongside your expertise.

  3. nicki says:

    Hi Moriel and Michael,
    Whilst I was studying last year for my B.A (hons)Early Years, the subject of how young children behave once in parental custody was raised in the context of ‘transitions’. The upshot of this nationwide Open University debate was that young children also have different perceptions of what is expected of them according to the context or situation they are in. It would appear that children are able to code-‘switch’ in their behaviour patterns as well as in their use of language.

    An interesting thought though! 😀

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